The January breeze was as sharp as my grief. A muted winter sun shimmered off the snow-draped mountains cradling my mother’s hometown in northern Lebanon as the cemetery gates creaked open, and I placed my mum’s portrait with her ancestors. She was home, at least symbolically. She had passed away unexpectedly in November on a random Thursday morning in Australia, where she had lived for many years.
My mother’s end was bookmarked at her beginning, in a motherland she never truly left. There are parts of this country we carry with us, even if, like me, we were not born here. We carry them in our names, in our food, in our stories, and in our family bonds that transcend time, distance, and generations, drawing us back.
There is a song by Fairouz, our beloved national icon and one of the most celebrated Arab singers of all time, that was part of the soundtrack of my childhood in New Zealand and Australia during Lebanon’s civil war, which wracked the country from 1975 to 1990. I understood the power of the words that would bring my parents to tears before I knew their meaning. In “Nassam Alayna al Hawa,” Fairouz implores the breeze to carry her home before she grows so old in a foreign place that her homeland can no longer recognize her.
My mother hadn’t changed since her last trip to Lebanon in the summer of 2019, but the motherland was almost unrecognizable now. It was a broken place. Bleak, depressed, desperate, its much celebrated indomitable spirit wounded by an economic collapse so ruinous that the World Bank called it one of the world’s worst since the 1850s.
The Lebanon of bountiful, leisurely Sunday lunches and gridlocked summer traffic as people escaped the heat of Beirut for the cool green mountains or the Mediterranean Sea had become a Lebanon of rising child malnutrition and food insecurity. Fuel, when it could be found, was now prohibitively expensive for many, making it hard to go to work or school, let alone weekend getaways. A way of life had faded, sapped of the vitality that some two decades ago drew me back as a journalist to the land of my heritage.
I “returned” to live in a country that I knew largely from my mother’s and father’s rose-colored recollections, but also from my childhood trips to a Lebanon tearing itself apart. My parents are from different parts of Lebanon and left together just before the civil war between Christians and Muslims. The Lebanon they carried with them was the Lebanon of Fairouz: part real, part imagined. It lived in the diva’s serenades about Lebanese nationalism and pan-Arabism, in songs about a gentler, simpler village life, about love, loss and exile, and the return of the diaspora.
My parents would take their young family to war-torn Lebanon for months-long vacations as often as they could, such was the insanity of the yearning to return. My memories of those visits are a jumble of sensations: The softness of my maternal grandmother’s enveloping embrace. Stomachaches from long afternoons in my grandfather’s orchards with my cousins, sampling too many of the fruits from his grapevines and his pomegranate, citrus, and fig trees. The heat wave dissipated by a car bomb. The suffocating fear of approaching militia checkpoints. The tracer bullets that arced red and elegant across the night sky (they were fireworks, my uncles told me). The realization that my grandparents’ three-story home was the third incarnation. The first two had been bombed and destroyed in the war, and that was why my mother didn’t have any photos of her childhood to show me.
My parents returned to Lebanon in the mid-’90s after the war ended, but they couldn’t adjust to the new postwar state. It wasn’t Fairouz’s Lebanon (if it had ever existed), their idealism colliding with the reality of a country where warlords took seats in parliament and granted themselves immunity for war crimes. Those leaders or their sons or designated political heirs have called the shots since the end of the war on everything from ministerial appointments to senior judicial nominations in the name of a consensual democracy that distributes power according to religious affiliation. This was supposed to foster coexistence, but it has worsened the fragmentation of society by reinforcing a sectarian, rather than national, identity. And so, after a few years in Beirut, my parents, nonsectarian and apolitical, went back to Australia.
Lebanon was created under French control after World War I, following centuries of Ottoman rule. Independent since 1943, it struggles with internal sectarian strife. A power-sharing deal between Christians and Muslims has led to a government that barely functions.
1956: Rise of the banking sector
The Lebanese Parliament enacts a secrecy law that makes the country a force in global banking. Financial institutions fuel Lebanese prosperity.
1975: Civil war erupts
Sectarian fighting ignites, severing Beirut into Christian and Muslim sections. Syria enters the next year under the pretext of mitigating the war.
1982: Israel invades
Border fighting leads to an invasion by Israel. After three years, Israel withdraws to south of the Litani River. Hezbollah emerges in resistance.
1990: Civil war ends
The nearly 15-year conflict ends a year after members of parliament sign the Taif Agreement, a power-sharing accord between Christians and Muslims.
1992-97: Development and debt
Lebanon sees a building boom, with large-scale projects around Beirut, but soon becomes heavily indebted to international investors.
2005: Syrian troops withdraw
Former prime minister Rafiq Hariri is assassinated, sparking anti-Syrian rallies. Syria pulls out its forces; the militant group Hezbollah joins the Lebanese government.
2015: State services falter
Authorities close the main landfill near Beirut, prompting protests as garbage fills the streets—a visible display of government breakdown.
2019-: Deepening disorder
Banks block access to cash, currency devaluation accelerates, and the Beirut port explosion leads to rioting and government resignations.
Source: Chloe Kattar, Darwin College, University of Cambridge
The Lebanon that I first made my home was booming, although politically and militarily dominated by Syria, its much larger neighbor, until 2005. Beirut was in a rebuilding frenzy, its restaurants crowded, its legendary nightlife extravagant. It was once again the Middle East’s playground, its intellectual and literary pressure valve. (But for locals, the redlines were clear: Don’t criticize senior religious or sectarian political leaders or Lebanon’s Syrian overlords, to name a few.) The country had its problems, but its people radiated an infectious, intoxicating joie de vivre, where less was never seen as more and more was never enough.
There were bursts of violent instability: a string of assassinations, a crushing war with neighboring Israel, shootouts in the streets over a political dispute. It was unpredictable, like living near a volcano, but there was dynamism in that volatility. It was infuriating and vibrantly chaotic, a place where rules like traffic lights were often considered suggestions and sweet-talking or bribing a civil servant was common currency. An untamed, unhealthy freedom flourished in that bedlam. Despite the country’s many flaws, I couldn’t help falling in love with it anyway. It was hard not to, its magnetism rooted in the vivaciousness of a people who determinedly clung to hope in a place that routinely broke their hearts.
Today many Lebanese pine for what they recall as those good old days, but the truth is that for many, they weren’t really good. Selective memory and nostalgia are soothing balms in a country where yesterday is usually better than today and tomorrow can elicit as much dread as it does hope. The fact is, the rot was always just below the glittery surface of a society that in some quarters boasted it could party under the bombs. Those roads taken to escape the summer heat were often crumbling, stretches of the Mediterranean were polluted, and too many Lebanese were living hand to mouth. The kleptocrats who bankrupted the state haven’t provided citizens with 24-hour electricity for decades, forcing us to rely on expensive neighborhood generators if we can afford them or go without electricity if we can’t. Most Lebanese have to buy water from private companies, because in this land of abundant natural springs and rivers, mismanagement has left their taps dry. Life in Lebanon has long meant paying two bills for the same basic amenity, a feature normalized by a people who are perhaps too good at adapting to hardship. Imtamsahna is a colloquialism Lebanese often use to explain how they are surviving: It means they’ve developed skin as thick as a crocodile’s.
Lebanon is an ancient land wedged between Israel, Syria, and the Mediterranean, a patchwork of 18 officially recognized sects riven by its many isms—sectarianism, classism, factionalism, nepotism, racism. Its population is said to be more than six million, though nobody knows for sure; there hasn’t been a census since 1932, to skirt the thorny issue of sectarian demographics. Lebanon also hosts more than two million Syrian and Palestinian refugees, one of the highest numbers of refugees per capita in the world.
To me, more than anything, Lebanon is a country of thwarted potential and underutilized riches, including an educated trilingual population, majestic archaeological ruins, fertile plains that the Roman army used as its breadbasket, exquisite cuisine to rival any other, and natural beauty framed by the Mediterranean that, like a loyal companion, extends the length of the country along spectacularly verdant mountains.
There is a heaviness, an exhaustion, a humiliation to what passes for everyday life in Lebanon these days. The Lebanese have endured two catastrophes in recent years that were so profound that they cleaved the country into a before and after. Ironically, the time leading up to the first disaster, the economic collapse, had been a moment of great hope for genuine change. In October 2019 tens of thousands of people across the country took to the streets to protest the incompetence and corruption of a political class that rules in its own interest.
The people called their movement a revolution. The government resigned. The banks closed, and when they reopened, they’d locked depositors out of their accounts, severely restricting withdrawals for all but the politically connected elite. The currency, the Lebanese pound, nosedived. (It has lost more than 90 percent of its value and is still falling.) Like most people with money in a Lebanese bank, I lost my life savings. Salaries have melted in value. More than 80 percent of the population is mired in a cruel, sudden poverty. Crippling shortages of everything from flour to medications have ensued in a country that imports most of what it consumes. The leaderless revolution fizzled after the state responded with force, and financial precariousness—exacerbated by triple-digit hyperinflation—left people preoccupied with securing the basics.
The streets of a capital that never slept are now dark in the absence of state electricity, which might come for an hour or so a day. Private generators can’t keep up. In my neighborhood in Beirut, the generators run intermittently for 13 hours a day. People hurry to get ready before the power cuts for an hour at 8 a.m. and rush to be home before midnight to avoid navigating stairwells in the dark. Some supermarkets no longer price goods on the shelves because they can’t keep up with currency fluctuations and hyperinflation. Unemployment is soaring, petty crime is rising, and hundreds of thousands of people are fleeing, or trying to.
And then there was the blast at the Port of Beirut on August 4, 2020, one of the largest nonnuclear explosions in history. It killed at least 218 people, injured thousands, and damaged more than 85,000 properties in and around the capital, including my apartment. It happened because thousands of tons of ammonium nitrate were recklessly stored for years in a port warehouse within walking distance of residential neighborhoods. A handful of senior political, judicial, military, and security officials knew about the dangerous material but did nothing to remove it.
There was no state recovery operation or organized emergency response, so citizens from across the country flocked to Beirut, armed with shovels and brooms. Volunteers and local NGOs set up stalls offering free food and water. One man on my street distributed water bottles from the trunk of his car. A couple went house to house donating detergents, apologizing that they couldn’t afford to offer more than that.
I met a mother, Juliana Abou Nader, as she pushed a stroller past the rubble of what had been stores. She invited me to her parents’ apartment. She’d moved in with them about a year earlier with her four children and husband, after she’d lost her job as an accountant. The tiny apartment was also home to her two adult sisters. Today her husband’s monthly salary (he’s an electrician at the public utility) isn’t enough to buy dinner at an average restaurant.
“Crisis after crisis, where will it end?” Abou Nader asked me. “It’s so hard to see the bakery where you get your bread, the old man who used to sit in front of his store, the supermarket my kids walk to, our pharmacist who is our friend, to see their homes destroyed.” Her parents’ home had also sustained damage. She fretted about the psychological impact of the blast on her children, how she was going to raise them in a state that didn’t protect its people, and what kind of a future they could aspire to when educated professionals couldn’t find work or get paid a living wage. “We love our country. The hardest thing for me to think about is leaving the country, but now I’m thinking about it,” Abou Nader said. “If I could leave, I’d leave.”
“Every time I close my eyes, I remember that moment,” Abou Nader’s younger sister, Giovanna Helou, told me. What moment? I asked. “The sound. Being thrown across the room. Dust. We couldn’t see each other. In seconds, everything changed.” She continued: “I protested in the revolution. They humiliated us. They beat us up. On the day of the explosion, before it happened, my dad and I were at the electric utility trying to see why we hadn’t had power for two weeks. Is that a way to live?”
The family’s apartment was walking distance from mine. My place, like all of those around me, was extensively damaged. My sister, who was helping me, went down to the main street to see if somebody might help us with clearing the heavier debris and all of the shattered glass. She asked for a volunteer. Twenty-three young people followed her into my home.
I have witnessed that community spirit and the individual determination not to break or succumb to hardships so many times. I reported in southern Lebanon in 2006 under ferocious Israeli bombardment. The landscape was dominated by the gray rubble of destroyed homes and infrastructure. Few people were braving the air strike–cratered roads, where anything that moved was a potential target. One day, out of nowhere, a new-model white Mercedes convertible festooned with white ribbons and a Just Married sign drove past me, a typically stubborn gesture, a reminder that life goes on. The alternative is simply not Lebanese.
Lebanon offers so few basic amenities to its citizens that it could serve as a setting for the television series Survivor. It is so broken that, like Beirut’s many neighborhoods, towns and villages must fend for themselves, becoming something like mini-republics. Beirut’s tribulations are widely known, but I wanted to see how one of the most neglected parts of the country was faring, so I went to Akkar, an impoverished rural governorate in northern Lebanon. There I met people like Abdel Rahman Zakaria, who have stepped up to help run their towns.
For a month before Zakaria was arrested for his role in a bank raid, he and his friends spent their days collecting trash in their hometown of Tikrit in Akkar’s Joumeh area after the municipal council, which is responsible for such services, resigned. It was Zakaria who negotiated the fee to dispose of the refuse. (The dump’s operators gave him a discount when they realized it was a citizen effort.) And it was Zakaria who went around his town of about 11,000 people, collecting donations to cover the $700 monthly fee.
The 30-year-old man isn’t a bank thief; he’s more of a modern-day Robin Hood. On September 14, 2022, Zakaria, who is unemployed, and a friend from Tikrit borrowed money for gas to drive to Beirut. There they accompanied another friend, Sali Hafiz, as she stormed her own bank and, wielding her nephew’s toy pistol, demanded and received about $13,000 of her own money. Hafiz needed it to pay for her younger sister’s cancer treatment. She eluded capture (although she later turned herself in), but Zakaria and his friend were detained. Nine days later, the men were home. “I would do it again,” Zakaria told me the day after his release, saying he’s always ready to help anyone. “I’ll go to them immediately, whoever they might be.”
This is what Lebanon has become: a place where more than a dozen people have held up banks to withdraw their own savings and citizens must organize basic public services. I’ve often heard Lebanese, especially those in the diaspora, criticize what they consider the apathy of those in the motherland. Why aren’t they protesting? How can they put up with such indignities? Zakaria tried protesting. He became a prominent activist. The metal pellets are still in his body. “Nobody listened. Nothing changed,” he said. And besides, now he’s too busy helping people.
His exploits, which he documents on social media, are renowned. There was the time when, during a fuel shortage, he and his friends blocked tankers from smuggling fuel into Syria, redirecting them to his hometown, where he distributed it for free. Or when he barged into a power station to ask why Joumeh wasn’t receiving any state electricity. After seeing that the line to Joumeh was turned off, he told me, “I flicked the switch myself to light our area.” There were also the many occasions when he’d gathered friends and rushed to a hospital after getting word that it refused to admit a patient without a hefty deposit. “All of a sudden the hospitals say they’ve waived their fees, that the person will be fully treated for free,” Zakaria said, “because they fear me blowing up the issue and making it a big deal on social media.”
But there’s only so much one man and his friends can do. The trash in Tikrit was piling up again. “I’m tired, it’s exhausting, and there’s no funding,” Zakaria said. He didn’t want to ask for more donations from the town’s residents, who were already struggling. He had appealed to Akkar’s governor, who brushed him off, telling him to “pull the thorn out of your own hand,” according to Zakaria. But he was adamant that he would not surrender to despair. “I’m not married and don’t have a job. What do I have to lose?” he said. “My wife is the village, my children are the village, everything I have is the village, and I will sacrifice everything for it.”
In the adjacent town of Beit Mellat and farther uphill in Memnaa, conditions are better only because, unlike Tikrit, both have a sizable diaspora they’ve turned to for help. It’s traditional for Lebanese who migrate to assist family who remain, but since 2019, Lebanese outside the country have organized a slew of initiatives to help pay for medical treatments, food, and other assistance to family, friends, and strangers, sometimes by crowdsourcing on social media.
In Memnaa I visited Hanna Ibrahim, the 66-year-old village mukhtar (a position roughly equivalent to a mayor) at his home. Three of his four children live abroad, including his eldest son, Charbel. The 43-year-old entrepreneur was born in a bomb shelter in Beirut and left Lebanon in 2001 for Sydney to join family that had settled there earlier. In 2019 Charbel started Steps of Hope, an Australian NGO that operates throughout Lebanon via partnerships, bankrolling soup kitchens, food distribution, medications, and small solar kits to help students do homework after dark. Its first big project was to repair 580 homes after the Beirut blast with about a million dollars the charity quickly raised. Charbel and around 20 of the 400 or so Lebanese Australians who trace their heritage to Memnaa also donate about $100,000 a year to their village.
“If it wasn’t for our children abroad,” Joseph Youssef, the head of Memnaa’s municipal council, told me, “our village would have suffered a lot and been humiliated.” The Australians helped buy a diesel generator to keep the lights on, and they pay for the fuel. They raised money for a pump to ensure homes have water. And they provide monthly stipends for the 24 families that don’t have relatives abroad. The aid is handled by the council, because, as Charbel says, “we don’t want to impugn people’s dignity by directly knocking on doors and saying, ‘This is a hundred dollars from Australia.’ We want to help everyone without hurting their pride.”
Beit Mellat relies on an even older diaspora: Mexicans of Lebanese heritage, whose ancestors first left in the 1800s. Those early immigrants helped a later wave of relatives who fled during the Lebanese civil war. “We have 7,000 people in the diaspora, and the majority are in Mexico,” Chahine Chahine, the head of the municipal council, told me. There are so many in Mexico from Beit Mellat that there is a town near Mexico City called Beit Mellat.
In 2021 the diaspora helped raise more than $150,000 to install solar panels on the homes of every one of the 96 families that live year-round in Lebanon’s Beit Mellat. Chahine said he received donations from some people who no longer even had family in Lebanon. “They’ve never been here, they don’t speak Arabic, they don’t know Beit Mellat,” he told me. “But they know that their ancestors are buried here, and they want to help the village.”
On a warm day, I had coffee with Toufic Geaitani on the balcony of his palatial villa in Beit Mellat. The 79-year-old fabric merchant left Lebanon in 1968 and is one of the many Lebanese Mexicans who help the town. He spends several months a year in Lebanon. His view looks out on a beautifully terraced orchard with fruit and olive trees. A single pine soars above the other vegetation. “It was planted by my late grandmother in 1880 or 1890,” Geaitani told me. I asked him a question that I have difficulty answering for myself: Why was he still connected to Lebanon? What compelled him to return?
“This secret pull,” he said. “It either needs a psychologist, or I don’t know what, to explain it!” He paused for a long time. “Our blood draws us back here,” he said. “Despite all the things that I see that are wrong here, all the things that don’t work, I can’t help it. I can’t help but return.”
It is difficult to love a country in turmoil that excels at exporting its children. Lebanon has long been a place people leave: to flee war, political instability, poverty, and famine; to pursue knowledge and learning; to reunite with family in the diaspora; and simply to forge a better life. Members of my family first left in the late 1800s.
So many Lebanese are now grappling with the same question: Should they stay, or should they go? Since 2019, requests for passports have increased tenfold, creating a backlog that means waiting well over a year for an initial appointment just to submit the paperwork. Those who can’t wait, or can’t afford passports, are turning to a sea that since antiquity has held the promise of new lands and new lives. Dozens have died on treacherous crossings to Europe.
Many parents I know have left with their families. One of my friends who is staying is fond of repeating a common phrase: “The country is not a hotel to check out of.” Perhaps. But unlike the Lebanese state, hotels provide basic services. Most days I vacillate between exasperated love and simmering rage. I mourn the pain that the economic crash has caused and the unaccountability of a selfish political class that won’t help its people.
I am a daughter of the diaspora, and I am part of the motherland. As my mother did throughout her life, I navigate between two worlds. Like many Lebanese, I leave the country for extended periods, but I cannot ever forsake it.
When I entered my blast-ravaged apartment in August 2020, the memory of my late grandmother walked in with me. I remembered her telling me how she couldn’t even retrieve a fork from the wreckage of her home, and I considered myself lucky. In a kitchen drawer, I still had cutlery. I repaired my apartment, vowing that I wasn’t fixing it only to abandon it. That would feel like a betrayal, a surrender. When a place is home, it takes a lot to sever the bonds of custom and affection, although I know that I am privileged. Unlike so many, courtesy of my Australian passport and dollars in my pocket, I have a guaranteed exit and the choice to take it.
In the explosion, every pane of glass in my apartment was shattered, except an antique trifora window that I had customized into an installation and mounted on a wall. In cursive Arabic calligraphy, the artwork spells out a desire, one that my parents held before me: Fairouz’s lyrics scroll across the three arched windows in bold black script, conveying the hope that should I find myself elsewhere, the breeze will carry me home.
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This story appears in the March 2023 issue of National Geographic magazine.